Under the Influence: Computer/Console RPG Thoughts




     I've already reviewed and talked about several videogame RPGs, ranging from the venerable yet still amazing Chrono Trigger to the Elder Scrolls games Oblivion and Skyrim, the Fallout series, and Dragon Age. Undoubtedly I'll review more later; I have quite a few on my shelves from the past many years.


     Today, however, I want to muse on the things I've liked, the things I don't like or find missing, and what I really would like to see in future CRPGs.


     To me, the ideal CRPG would be one that allows me to re-create, in toto, the experience of being in a real (face to face) roleplaying session with a good gamemaster, with the additional advantage of visuals and mechanics that reinforce the experience in a way that your typical pen-and-paper game can't manage. At the ultimate end of this is of course a perfect virtual reality, the "simgames" mentioned several times in Grand Central Arena, but for most of this I'll focus on things I would expect or want to see in my lifetime.


     Early games often labored under physical limitations of space that are virtually incomprehensible to people who are just entering adulthood now. The classic Chrono Trigger was one of the largest, most ambitious, complex games ever made when it was released for the SNES. It had to contain all of its gameplay, music, graphic data, and so on in 4 megabytes (32 megabits) of space. These days, game save files are often much, much larger than that.


     So one may understand that I am often annoyed when a modern game, running off a CD with 640 megabytes of space, or a DVD with gigabytes of space, fails to match capabilities that I saw in Chrono Trigger. Yes, I understand that modern spectacular animation and cutscenes take up a lot of space, but one could pack ten times the story in Chrono Trigger into less than 40 megabytes of space; am I demanding so much, then, that the developer devote less than ten percent (on a DVD, less than one percent) of their space to story? Note that even there I'm allowing for the fact that these days "story" is more complex to generate, as it involves more "intelligence" in the system; the original Chrono Trigger story undoubtedly only took up a relatively small fraction of that 4 megabytes, given that there were 3 CDs of music from the game plus all the graphics and gameplay components).


     In my discussion of Oblivion and Skyrim, I noted that the major advantages of the games were their wide-open, explorable world with multiple quests one could take, or not, to follow many paths. In this sense, they surpass the old games easily both in diversity of choice and world. The major advantages of games like Dragon Age are deeper world immersion through customization of background and character prior to entering any main quest line, and the ability to have more personal interaction with characters, developing affection or animosity depending on what you do and how.


     An improved game should feature both of these. There's no reason to limit me to one of some small number of map locations, nor to railroad me on one path to solve the current problem. Certainly, it's a good idea to have guideposts, so to speak, so that I can tell how to find A good solution to the current quest, but not require me to move along some relatively short list of connect-the-dots destinations. I also would like to be able to interact with my fellow party members as people – make friendships, even, if appropriate, have romances.


     (A way to toggle various options like that would be nice, too; some people would prefer to spend their time problem-solving and so on, and the interactions would be a distraction)


     One of the classic problems of CRPGs that really needs to be addressed now, because it is – speaking honestly – long past the point where it can be excused on technical grounds – is the "waist-high-fence" phenomenon, where some barrier is placed in the way of the characters that is clearly easy to get past, yet the characters cannot pass it until some particular set of conditions are met. In some games this was literally a waist-high fence, or a "river" that appeared to be about six feet wide.


Alas, this has not gone away in modern games. In Fallout 3, for instance, there are often rooms which are impossible to enter without a key… even though the door is clearly just an aging wooden office door with the glass broken in already. Such a door would be so flimsy by now (a hundred years post-apocalypse) that I, personally, would have no trouble breaking it down, yet my character – manly enough to beat giant scorpions to death with her bare hands if desired, in possession of weapons galore and explosives up to and including blocks of C-4, cannot get through that door until she locates some particular NPC (non-player character) who has the key to open it.


This isn't at all exclusive to science-fiction themed games; in fact, I've often found it even more egregiously obvious in fantasy CRPGs; in Final Fantasy VII, for instance, you're playing a character who is able to fight gargantuan mechs and draconic monsters larger than a house, using a sword which must outweigh him and somehow whipping that sucker around like a whiffle bat, yet an ordinary safe or door stymies him and his whole party, all of which are equally superhuman in their own ways.


This is, not to put too fine a point on it, sheer laziness in programming. If you don't want people to get into an area, make the area believably hard to get into; don't just hang a screen door across it and then use divine programmer fiat to prevent entry. In Fallout this is especially egregious, since there's plenty of high-tech locations which have excellent secure facilities (the ultimate examples being the Vaults themselves, which were built to survive nuclear strikes), and thus many opportunities for the programmers to put in things that would be hard-to-impossible for PCs to reasonably get into unless they did things right.


Or, if you can't make it believably hard for some reason, then figure out some other penalty for using the "break it down" option. Neverwinter Nights allowed characters to break down doors or smash open treasure chests if they couldn't pick the locks – but breaking open a chest might destroy items inside, so in general you much preferred to pick the locks one way or another.


Consistency in world also implies that people should behave consistently. Ironically, sometimes an attempt to produce more realistic-seeming behavior ends up introducing wincingly bad inconsistencies. A lovely example is in Oblivion. Depending on what you've done within the game, your character may be a nobody, or someone apparently well-known; in the latter case, you may be greeted by guards and others you meet with lines such as, "It… it's YOU! The Hero of Kvatch! This is is such an honor!" or "You're the Champion of the Arena!".


And then immediately after such respectful or even awed greetings, the guard in question says some snippy line when you address them, or even threatens you, depending on other factors. Now, really; even if my character has committed some crime, are you, a lone guard, going to just attack or bully a guy who – quite literally! – went straight into hell and came back out himself? Or who fought his way through DOZENS of life-and death battles in the Arena, always emerging the sole survivor, even against the prior Champions?


Okay, maybe there's one or two guards that stupid or brash, but ALL of them? I'd think the thought of The Hero of Kvatch gone bad would be nightmarish and the sort of thing that causes you to run VERY fast, and then call in LOTS of reinforcements. And shoot from range.


Generally, NPC reactions fall into a very few classes, and they seem to often have little memory of prior events. The great hero of the realm, having shed his blood countless times for King and Country, mighty warrior or wizard who has faced down demons and monsters alone more times than can be counted, happens to PICK UP a single fruit from a stand without having engaged the vendor in conversation (and thus being marked as "buying"), and suddenly he's to be arrested or killed.


This kind of thing really needs to be better managed – with people's behavior towards you being influenced by your prior behavior, and MEMORY of that behavior. To some extent, the Persona games do a fair amount of that; you get different reactions, and often new reactions, from characters depending on how you had previously interacted with them.


In the area of MMORPGs, I will admit to minimal knowledge; I've played in impromptu larger-scale online RPG forums but none of the commercial ones. There are, however,  certain issues I know of associated with them that I consider unacceptable for a game I'd pay for.


One of those is the subscription model; I want to buy a game, not an ongoing money drain. I don't have to keep paying money to Bethesda in order to keep playing Oblivion or Skyrim or Fallout. I may have to pay money to get some new additional adventures, but all the CORE content should be included in my original payment. I've seen that some such games are apparently providing some amount of content "free", but I'm looking more for "majority of my content is covered by single-time payment of X forever"; the other way rings strongly of the old drug-pusher associated phrase, "the first hit's free".


Another issue is "problem players". Some other player shouldn't be ABLE to ruin my fun because he or she thinks its funny to ax the newbie or the occasional player who isn't skilled enough to defend himself. I should be able to decide who I play with, and how, and certainly able to say "those other players? No, they can't touch me and I can't touch them. Leave me alone."


Lord of the Rings Online introduces another one of my personal hot buttons, one peculiar to other-media derived content (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc.): sandboxing me away from the main action. I'm sorry, but if I'm playing in Middle-Earth during the War of the Ring, I should have the potential to BE the central figure. That's the point of playing in an RPG, at least to me: to be the Hero (or, I suppose, the Villain), the protagonist of the entire story. Apparently in LotRO this is quite simply impossible; what happens in the book is set in stone and there is nothing that will change it.


As a GM, this just gets my back up; I set plotlines for my games, but I acknowledge that my players will, almost certainly, bend or break that plotline quite quickly, so I have many possible "fallback" positions to keep the game interesting while not blocking the players from doing what they want to do and what makes sense for them to do in context.


This connects back, also, to the prior "waist-high fence" problem: the worlds of CRPGs rarely act like worlds except in the most superficial sense, and at this point – after thirty-plus years of technological advancement – it's really time to start addressing that.


The problem is that most CRPGs are still, at the core, built on a set of fairly limited, rigid assumptions and choices. When a character comes up to a river that they need to cross, the game makes assumptions about how they'll cross – and these assumptions are usually quite limited and hardcoded. The characters are expected to find a ferry, or notice a particular tree they can chop down, or something. But they can't, for example, choose to use the Staff of Frost to freeze the river long enough to cross, or use "talk with animals" on a crocodile, or build a raft, or any of a hundred other solutions – unless THAT SPECIFIC SOLUTION was coded into the machine.


But that's not the way real RPGs work; in those, your creative players look at the problem – whether it's crossing the river, unlocking a door, killing something way too big for them, or arranging a cease-fire – and apply things they have or know in ways that, usually, you didn't anticipate but which DO make sense in the world context. I have to believe that it has become more and more possible, in the past couple of decades, to create elements of the world that can work together based on what they ARE rather than on the uses to which the PROGRAMMER assumes they will be put.


Most especially, however, do not present me with a sequence of events that PREVENTS me from taking an action that I have previously taken and know I CAN take, simply to allow The Plot to continue. One of the most well-known and offensive examples of this was in Final Fantasy VII, where –immediately after your main character overcomes his brainwashing and refuses to kill Aerith, the party healer – Sephiroth, the Big Bad, drops from above and runs Aerith through with his sword in a big dramatic cutscene.


And you cannot use one of the items that you could use in EVERY. OTHER. BATTLE. to resurrect fallen comrades. You can't even try. I'd accept "try and fail" – have someone comment "my god, his blade cut her SOUL!" or some other justification – but not the simple "let's ignore the fact that we have fought things the size of skyscrapers that stomped some of us to death and we brought them back to life".


Similarly, you shouldn't prevent me from, for example, following the Suspicious Grand Vizier, that you've MADE very Suspicious Indeed. Or, for that matter, screw following him, just shoot him from a concealed location. Or AT LEAST let me confront him, instead of sitting here as a player saying "DEAR GOD, HE'S THE VILLAIN!" and the character smiling and blithely accepting everything that Evil McEvil guy says. Sure, maybe SOME characters would not notice, but some WOULD, and I should have that option.


In some games, such as Oblivion or Skyrim, such physical features as rivers aren't much of a barrier at all; you can swim (even in plate armor!) at a walking pace forever, often there's water-breathing spells, and there aren't even any creatures of note in the water except a few fish, only one of which (the Slaughterfish) can even attempt to injure you. This is in itself a notable departure from realism especially in the warmer, coastal waters of Cyrodil in Oblivion; when swimming along underwater it often becomes what looks like a wasteland even at relatively shallow depths and you hardly ever see even the smallest fish.


My expectation as a player would be that if you allow me to swim freely through the underwater world, that the underwater world should be at least as "alive" as the one on land. It was quite disappointing to discover that my freedom of motion merely allowed me to discover one of the more glaring omissions of the game.


I do not, however, object to some breaks with reality for game/playability/dramatic  reasons. In real life, a human being won't survive a couple hits with a good-sized sword, or being shot with bullets multiple times; moreover, if they DO survive, you're looking at weeks of recovery time.


But for the most part, these are games on a Heroic scale. I want – and, I presume, most players want – the ability to take on multiple opponents at once in a grand melee and survive. We don't want to spend the majority of our time in a hospital. We don't want to spend most of our time running from any conflict or needing to assemble large military forces every time there's any significant threat.


I would like to have most areas of difficulty able to be adjusted. This would include combat difficulty and other aspects, and, especially in more action-oriented games, an "Old Fogey Button" which allowed me to say "Sorry, I can't get past this challenge, assume I did and let me keep going". The latter is what has defeated me in all the Lara Croft (Tomb Raider) games; at some point it requires too much coordination and fast reflexes to get past some puzzle or obstacle, and eventually I just give up. As virtually all games have a "task completed" or "goal" state, it shouldn't be terribly hard to simply move me to the next goal.


So really, am I asking so much? All I want is:


  • New games at reasonable ($40) prices
  • All major content included
  • At least 1 hour of gameplay (following the main storyline, not counting all sidequests) for each dollar of price, preferably 2 hours
  • Consistent world behavior
  • Lots of control over game options:
  • a.  Ability to vary overall game difficulty (most games do have this)
  • b.  Ability to skip past major challenges that the player finds too arduous
  • c.  Ability to vary "focus" of the game to player preference (hack-and-slash, epic dramatics, romance, etc.)
  • d.  Possibly variation of mechanics (turn-based VS real-time combat, etc.)
  • Plenty of character interaction


Okay, maybe I AM being unreasonable… but I think we can work towards it more than we have seen in most games thus far!







  1. You have codified the games of my dreams.
    I’d also like something that moved more in the direction of Neverwinter Nights, where you could have a human GM running the game and designing ‘dungeons’ for you, then play through with some of your friends. (My ideal would be something like Melissa Scott had in her book Burning Bright, although I’m not sure what kind of interface could make what was essentially a table top gaming session but with full VR versions of the world and characters.)

  2. Hi Ryk,

    Excellent points. In many recent games (Fallout, Skyrim, etc.), a lot of your points are corrected via an active modding community. However, knowing that you are primarily a console player, this is not a viable option for you. However, if you ever decide to come over to the dark side of PC gaming:), there are a lot of resources out there that can make even deeply flawed games much more palatable.

    And if you want to take a look at a game currently in development that has ambitions that cover a lot of your points, take a look at Star Citizen on kickstarter. This game just finished a crowd funding campaign that generated over 6 million dollars and looks to set the bar for space rpg/sim games of which we have had very few in recent years.

    Hope you had a great Thanksgiving!

    • So, Star Citizen is an MMORPG, if my quick glance is correct? Hopefully playable on a Mac, as I don’t have nor expect to have a PC.

      I find it interesting that game modding isn’t doable on the consoles. Obviously OFFICIAL DLC can be done for them, so it seems odd to me that there’s no way for the fans to make DLC for them. I presume it’s because the console makers are stupid enough to not see the advantages of an active community and thus work hard to keep you from being able to do such things.

      • Yes, I think the console would be well served in finding a way to allow free mod content. One of the problems is probably that so much of the systems are proprietary, the legal hoops an individual modder would have to jump through are more than most people would be willing to go through. It would certainly extend the life of most games though. For instance, in Fallout Vegas (PC of course), there is a mod that gives you your own underground bunker with lots of conveniences. The most stunning is an armory where the ammo you collect is visibly stowed on shelves and the weapons you collect are displayed on wall racks. I’ve spent a lot more time in the game than I normally would have just collecting all the unique weapons so I can have them displayed:).

        As to Star Citizen, the key element for me is that in addition to being able to play in the persistent MMORPG the game is also supposed to be released so that you can set up your own private server. This would allow someone to set up a game world for their own group of players without having to deal with the hordes of 12 year old PVP griefers. No one knows yet how the scripting would work but it should be quite possible to create your own quests and adventures within the simulation itself. I’ve got visions of pen and paper Traveller and Space Opera in a detailed space sim running through my mind. I’m sure my expectations won’t be fully realized but for the moment, I’m a bit giddy about the whole thing:).

        It’s all about having options…

Your comments or questions welcomed!